Walking over water

SACRED VIRGIN: TRAVELS ALONG THE NARMADA Royina Grewal Penguin Books India Rs 100

By Seema Kalra
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Our ancients often undertook a barefoot parikrama (travel down the length) of the Narmada river to cleanse themselves of their sins. Few would do this today. Yet, Royina Grewal, inspired by her childhood association with the river, had set off (in a car) on an arduous journey, documenting the course of this river and its virgin environs before the onslaught of development ravaged it.

Categorised as a travelogue, the book is really a sensitive and objective portrayal of the people of Narmada; their beliefs, lifestyles and their links with the river. Grewal manages to bring alive the beauty of the river and the forests around it, the fear of the people whose livelihood would be taken away by the dam, and also the perspectives of the engineers who are building the dam.

The research is commendable, and informs the uninitiated about the technicalities involved in the controversy. Anthropological, geological and aquatic details of the region have been suitable represented. Besides, the socio-historical research -- with subtle references to mythological details, like the Pandavas' failed attempt to dam the river -- puts the construction of the dam in perspective.

Despite her definite bias towards the tribals, she avoids rhetoric. Grewal writes: "...there is, I realise, no question of halting the construction. The most that can be hoped for now is a concerted effort towards a height reduction to minimize the damage." She thus comes across as a strong proponent of the middle path.

Her anecdotal encounters with the villagers, especially those belonging to the villages facing submergence, are an interesting depiction of their true plight. "When someone from the Andolan comes we put it up. When someone from the government comes we take it down. We weren't sure where you are from. We no longer know whom to believe or what to do", says a confused villager from Borkhedi, referring to the protest symbols that are to be hoisted on the rooftops.

But the one thing readers will miss is a map of the route she had undertaken in this motor-parikrama.

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